One of the most difficult things for adults to handle is the evaluation of information to get to the truth. Many people have no real knowledge of how to go about vetting sources to see if the information is correct and therefor fall easily to campaigns of misinformation. Very few people take the time to evaluate sources because it is tedious and might cause them to realize that the things they want to believe may be wrong. It would seem that the explosion of information that occured from the development of the internet would make it easier to find truth but, like happened near the end of the enlightenment, people are increasingly falling prey to misinformation and conspiracies instead of finding the factual evidence that would be helpful. One helpful mindset to start this voyage toward truth with is the fact that everything ever written by mankind is written from a particular perspective. The vast majority of the time they are slanted towards a viewpoint to try to increase the popularity of this thought. So the first step in finding truth is a good deal of skepticism about any writing.
Always remember the mnemonic APART
The first step would be to check the sources of information that you are evaluating. Finding out who the author and publisher of the page can be extremely beneficial in establishing some level of credibility of the information. Once you have determined this you will need to check on the credentials BOTH the author and the publisher to gauge how likely they are to be a credible source in the field/topic.
If the author has a PHD in a related field, they are significantly more likely to be telling you correct information. If these same people are widely regarded as leaders among the doctors in this specialized field, their credibility skyrockets. If they teach at a top ranking university (like MIT) then their credibility is further bolstered
If the publisher is an informational website (like .edu or .gov) it is far more likely that they are giving credible information, however, if they are business or advocacy websites (like .org or .com) there is a far greater chance of misinformation or opinion. Furthermore if the site is large enough to have sponsors, you can learn a lot about the credibility of the site by who they are sponsored by. No legitimate business wants to be associated with ‘fake news.’
If the author or publisher has no authority in the field, they have not been peer reviewed, or their credentials are hard to find, then this is a source that you will want to place far less value on. That is not to say that these sites can’t be correct, but if given the choice I would choose a medical doctor (Md) over a random guy on the street that claims he can do my surgery. For this reason, personal web pages, blogs, personal youtube videos, or social media posts have next to no value whatsoever.
Lastly, major companies are actually seen as far more reliable than the thoughts of individuals due solely to the fact that they are often sued. These companies often have enough money that they become targets of defamation lawsuits and therefore they have much more of a reason to create information that is either truthful, or (more often) not so wrong that it would lead them to lose money in a lawsuit.
The next step to in analyzing sources would be analyzing why it was published and what audience this publisher is trying to persuade with this site. The idea of establishing the intent of the page or article can be revealing in some cases and should always be evaluated for this reason. If the publisher is known for having a political leaning or if this is an editorial article (i.e. opinion based) it should be viewed from a far different perspective than that of an educational website. Since you already did a credential check (see above), you should have information on the publisher that you can use to determine their purpose. What you want to focus on at this point is the potential for bias (prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another) on this page. For instance, it may be prudent to value material far less than others if it falls into one of these categories:
If you find that this site has a particular ideological leaning and the page or article in question supports that same ideology.
If the author is from a group that may be biased against the group that is the focus of the article (gender, sexual, racial, political, social and/or cultural orientations) or is simply presenting an opinion with very little specific evidence to support it.
If the sponsors on the site are trying to get you to click on an advertising banner that is clearly in favor of the content of the article.
If the author or publisher would make more money or political positions if more of the country agreed with this line of thought.
One great indicator is whether the story is written in an objective manner and tone. If the author is really good about giving the opinions on all sides of an issue before giving his opinion that is a great indicator of an article of value. This must be done in a way that doesn’t just bring up an idea to dismiss it, but that shows the author values all opinions even if he or she takes a side. This rarely happens but it is a great sign that the author has researched in an in depth manner. Generally speaking those who have a good deal of knowledge on a subject act with relative objectivity, while those with next to no knowledge are often very confident in themselves (see the Dunning-Kruger Effect).
Accuracy (or Evidence)
Once you determine whether the source is valid (from authority) you will want to focus on the evidence. The question at hand is what evidence did they base their argument on in this article or page? If they have no hard facts or data to support their position, then this must be viewed as an opinion and viewed as far less reliable than others. If they have solid data that is referenced or cited in the article you should evaluate those sources. Sometimes you will find that the source looks legitimate, but a quick research on the group that gathered the data shows that they are extremely biased. For this reason, you need to take some time to evaluate the evidence given for accuracy and potential bias.
One phenomenal resource that few people know about or use is “peer reviewed” journals. Many fields have academic journals in which scholars test their theories by publishing them and allowing other scholars an opportunity to poke holes in their theories. If you find that this information can be corroborated by an academic journal in the field then this information becomes extremely credible. There is a screening process to these sources to approve of content before it is published and this is done by respected men and women in the field, so this content has already been partially verified to guard against silly beliefs. This is not to say that this theory is the only theory in the field (scholars argue a ton), but it is likely to be a theory that can’t be fully disproven at the very least. Despite the far higher probability of accuracy these articles should be verified in the same manner from the previous paragraph.
One common mistake is for people to choose research that is related to the topic at hand, but not closely enough to really support the point at hand. This can be done by students or the authors of the article so it is important to be aware of this issue. It could be that the article uses partial data to prove an important point but the data is skewed from the original intent in an attempt to make the article seem more supported. So students should first make sure that the evidence used in the article is reliable and clearly connected to the topic at hand and then they should try to make sure that they don’t knowingly or accidentally misuse the data themselves by using it in a different manner or focus than the original intention.
This may seem silly and obvious but one of the most common issues that you will find in research is that the authors will cherry pick the data to suit the narrative and ignore conflicting data. When authors do this they show their bias and that they are not suitable references for this subject unless careful consideration is made for sources that are biased in the opposite direction.
This may seem like an obvious thing to bring up, but it is important not to forget to check the dates on both the article and the evidence associated with the issue. If you are looking up cancer research the most logical decision to make would be to base it on recent research since the topic changes so much as scientists make new discoveries. Make sure to check both the dates on the article and the dates on the evidence the article based its decisions on to make sure that you don’t fall prey to this common mistake.